MLB: Kansas City Royals at New York Mets

There has been a lot written in this space about Ubaldo Jimenez in the past few months. About his value as a durable starter, about his turnaround after an ugly 2012, and his upside as a big league starter.

For every sentence written about Ubaldo, by all rights there should be a comparable sentence written about Ervin Santana. Because almost all the above statements regarding Ubaldo Jimenez hold true for Ervin Santana.

But, somehow, it doesn’t quite feel the same for Santana. Yes, he was great in 2013. He added a new pitch and rediscovered the form that made him a 5 WAR pitcher in 2008 and a three win guy in both 2010 and 2011. So where’s the love? Does Ervin Santana deserve the same type of deal as Ubaldo Jimenez?

Here’s the thing about Ervin Santana – he’s scary. He reminds me of Jeremy Hellickson, ever so slightly. It looks messy, like it’s all about to come apart at the seams. When he’s on, he’s great! Improbably, Santana ranks in the top ten in baseball for both complete games and shutouts since 2008. He can put together a great outing at the drop of the hat.

But, just as likely, he will give up a hatfull of home runs. Unlike Jimenez, Santana pitched in front of good defensive teams in very pitcher-friendly ballparks. His strikeout numbers are generally league-average while he walks slightly fewer than an average starter. Even if we scroll back to Santana’s career year, he still falls well short of Ubaldo’s production over a similar time frame.

Rk Player WAR From To Age GS CG SHO IP ERA+ HR
1 Ubaldo Jimenez 19.6 2008 2013 24-29 195 8 3 1186.0 112 92
2 Ervin Santana 12.3 2008 2013 25-30 183 13 6 1199.0 104 165
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 2/18/2014.

Santana, truthfully, is a middle of the rotation starter. That is what he was for the duration of his career and he was essentially that during his eventful 2013 season. Santana did well to put together a great walk year in an ideal situation. But what kind of player does his next team acquire when they finally get his name on a contract?

They get a two-pitch version of Edwin Jackson, if we’re being frank. A fastball/slider guy who was reborn as a two-seamer slider guy during his one year in Kansas City. Edwin Jackson hit free agency much younger, thanks to his big league debut coming at the tender age of 19, but they are similar players – lots of innings, middling run prevention, the works. League average is not a four-letter word.

Maybe you believe his new two-seamer gives him a better weapon against lefties and will keep the ball in the park. Maybe you believe his home run prevention in future lands somewhere between 2012 (terrible!) and 2013 (downright manageable!)

Courtesy of Brooks Baseball

Courtesy of Brooks Baseball

Like Jackson and Ricky Nolasco and even Matt Garza, Ervin Santana is a mid-rotation innings eater with minimal ceiling or “upside.” His health risks are pitcher health risks. For the right team, a team that needs him not to save the day but dutifully take the ball, he’s fine. Good even.

Seattle is a nice match for this assortment of abilities, given the Mariners’ dearth of durable starters (in stark contrast to the plethora of high risk, high reward arms in their mix). Toronto is in a similar boat, though their ballpark and division situation significantly lowers Santana’s margin for error. A return to Kansas City makes all kinds of sense but the Royals take out their checkbooks for NO MAN.

Potential Ervin Santana employers know exactly who he is and what he offers. Whether they want to follow the Orioles suit and guarantee a fourth year remains to be seen. How many of Santana’s key skills will he still use at age-34 compared to 30? Does it really matter? If Santana does for his next team what Edwin Jackson did for the 2012 Nationals, would anybody complain?

Flags don’t always fly forever. And while the terms of some pitcher contracts signed this winter should give the accounting-minded fan some hope that Ervin Santana won’t end up hopelessly overpaid, there is risk in handing out eight-figure contracts no matter if the money is “yours” or not.

Ervin Santana, counted on to contribute to, rather than lead, a pitching staff, represents a nice add (even with the draft pick compensation factored into the equation.) But anybody who thinks Ervin Santana comes with even the modest upside of Ubaldo Jimenez is probably kidding themselves and will receive a rude awakening at some point in June. Just a hunch. Happy shopping!